Wednesday, August 7, 2013
One of the most difficult things for those who are new or are single is attending Sunday worship. You walk into church and find yourself in a pew surrounded by families on all sides, or worse, you find yourself sitting completely alone. It seems that those around you know each other but you often feel isolated. Often, no one talks to you and no one reaches out. One of my friends said, “Sometimes I feel like I smell or something, people don’t even sit by me.”
I know the feeling. There are countless of Sundays where I sat alone, the only words exchanged between my neighbors and me were “Peace be with you”. Ironic isn’t it? The one place we are meant to be in communion – with Jesus, the church and one another – is the one place where we can feel the most isolated.
My friends and I talked about how some of churches seem to be more overtly friendly than others. Have you ever attended one of their services? You instantaneously become a friend, find out about them, and find yourself at their house the following Tuesday for Bible Study and the next Friday for a cookout. Instead of the new or single person being a pariah, they seem drawn to you as a magnet. They understand fellowship (funny, though most of those friendly places do not have THE fellowship of the Sacrament).
The names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty. I know exactly what this person is talking about. I see it every Sunday. It is as if the people in my parish seat apart from each other on purpose. Perhaps it is an over abundant sense of personal space. Or shyness. Or maybe fear. We sit in ways that magnify the spiritual distance between us.
I wonder if this distance is not partially responsible for the way new folks seem disconnected from the Church and drift slowly away. Sure, we could blame them. If they were really committed they would get to know us. OR we could confess that fellowship is often a bigger underlying issue than we want to admit. I am NOT speaking about fellowship in the sense of the Lord's Table but the fellowship of the pew, or, rather, the lack thereof.
People are always asking me what happened to this person or that when they have missed them for a few weeks (or months). "Have you called on them?" they ask of me. My standard reply, "Have you???" I know that this is a difficult subject but it seems to me that this is one common denominator in congregations that struggle with attracting or keeping new folks. It is or it should be an easy problem to fix. But it continues in liturgical congregations and in those that embrace decidedly untraditional worship.
Somehow we need to communicate to our people how important this can be -- if it is present it can make up for many other shortcomings but if it is absent it can take away from many other strengths. Remember that we live in a very fractured world in which the technology available to us often diminish the value or necessity of face to face communication. Yet it is this personal welcome and friendship that is most needed and desired by folks in our disjointed world.
We struggle with this all the time here. I hope that other congregations struggle with it as well -- the alternative is to ignore the problem. Our Lord reminds us several times of the importance of the welcome given to strangers (entertaining angels unawares and doing it to Christ when we welcome the least and lost). I find that this issue as absolutely NOTHING to do with whether or not the congregation uses the liturgy or has free fall worship on Sunday morning. I have personally been at congregations with full fledged CCW and CCM in which not one soul spoke to me when I visited (sans clerical collar). I have also been to congregations in which the Divine Service was absolutely splendid and the music wonderful but the people were equally oblivious to me and my family's presence there. It is a very different issue than worship "style" and so it cannot be fixed by exchanging the organ with a praise band. A welcoming congregation is not simply attuned to the visitor or new face. A welcoming people are attuned to everyone around them, new visitors and old members, and reach out with friendship equally. Incidentally, I find that often a "cold" congregation is not simply distant from new folks, those folks are generally as oblivious to the old members around them as well.
Something to think about. . .